New rules could jeopardize whale-watching tours leaving from the arctic community of Churchill, Manitoba. (Lazy Bear Expeditions/CTV News)

Beluga tour operators protest new government regulations

Tour operators in the northern town of Churchill, Manitoba say new government rules to protect whales could put them out of business. Regulations were announced in June 2018 obliging vessels to keep a distance from whales, porpoises and dolphins.

The rules were drafted after several whales were killed by ship strikes in the distant St. Lawrence Estuary in southern Quebec. But the tour operators argue their situation is very different and that the regulations should not apply to them.

Beluga whales are curious and it could be impossible to keep them away from tour boats, say tour operators. (Oceans North/CBC)

‘Beluga whales are very social’

“Beluga whales are very social, and they approach our boats as soon as they leave dock, and kayakers and snorkelers as soon as they are in the water. It is not possible for tour operators to keep 50 metres distant, let alone 100 metres, from the Belugas,” said Wally Daudrich, chair of the Churchill Beluga Whale Tour Operator Association in a news release.

“It looks to us like the only way for tour operators to comply is not to put boats, kayaks or snorkelers in the water. Further, for at least one of our members, snorkeling with Belugas represents two thirds of their business. Turning away guests who want to engage in these kinds of interaction would shutter our family-run businesses,” added Daudrich.

People photographing belugas.

Whale-watching tours provide jobs and revenue for the ailing town of Churchill. (Lazy Bear Expeditions/CTV News)

Tourists are already on the way

The association has written to the government to ask for an exemption to the rules for its members, but has so far received no reply. Tour operators say notice of the new regulations was sudden and they had already booked tours and purchased supplies and equipment for the coming season.

The operators say they are not a threat to belugas and that their presence discourages hunting which they maintain is the real danger to the animals.

Jobs, businesses at risk

If the tour operators are found to contravene the regulations and get too close to the whales, they are liable for fines up to $500,000 under Canada’s Fisheries Act.

They estimate the new regulations put at risk some 200 jobs and up to $10 million of economic activity in Churchill. The town is already suffering economic hardship after a vital rail link to the south was washed out and it’s port was shuttered.

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